West Coast: An introduction

The West Coast is an untamed natural wilderness, encompassing sweeping coastlines, mountain peaks, glaciers, rainforests and lakes.

This vast, sparsely populated landscape stretches 600 kilometres (370 miles) and is New Zealand’s largest and most protected region. It includes the spectacular Haast World Heritage Area, five of New Zealand’s 14 national parks and five marine reserves.

Conservation and sustainability are important to the West Coast, where 90 per cent of the land is administered by the Department of Conservation (DOC). Native wildlife and vegetation flourish along the coastline, in rainforests and on the icy slopes of the Southern Alps.

Travel guide publisher Lonely Planet called the Great Coast Road one of the world’s "Top 10 Coastal Drives". The rugged landscape also makes the West Coast a destination for thrillseekers, pursuing activities such as heli-hiking on glaciers, mountain biking, sky diving and rafting.

Heritage

The West Coast is the only New Zealand source of pounamu (nephrite jade or greenstone), valued for its strength, durability and beauty, and traditionally used by Māori to make tools and adornments.

For a time, the local Ngāti Wairangi people and their pounamu were protected from other tribes by the mountains separating them from the rest of New Zealand. However, they were eventually defeated by the Ngai Tahu, who found their way across the mountains to fight for the precious stone.

Gold fever in the 1860s brought tens of thousands of miners to the West Coast, creating boom towns and a rampant, gold-fuelled economy. In its heyday, the port town of Hokitika (current population 3,500) boasted a population of 6,000 and more than 100 hotels. This period of West Coast history is highlighted in writer Eleanor Catton’s Booker Prize-winning novel The Luminaries.  

Sustainable tourism

The West Coast’s rich natural heritage has been recognised since the early days of settlement. The Upper and Lower Buller Gorges were among New Zealand’s first designated scenic reserves.   

Sustainable tourism practices are growing on the West Coast as the locals, known as "Coasters", work to preserve the fragile natural environment and share its beauty without endangering it.  

Eco-lodges are part of this movement, catering for visitors looking for accommodation ranging from simple coastal campsites and chalets, to luxury boutiques.

Birds Ferry Lodge in Charleston is a boutique lodge with the highest rating for environmental sustainability. Similarly, Wilderness Lodge Lake Moeraki, inside the Te Wahipounamu South West New Zealand world heritage site, is a haven for nature lovers. 

Nature and wildlife

Five West Coast marine reserves were opened in September 2014, covering more than 174 square kilometres (43,000 acres), to help preserve the West Coast's diverse ecosystems from the mountains out to sea. 

The long, rugged coastline is home to several rare wildlife species, including the endangered Hector’s dolphin and the Fiordland crested penguin. Okarito lagoon has New Zealand’s only white heron breeding colony, and New Zealand fur seals breed at Cape Foulwind.

The Oparara Basin, in a corner of Kahurangi National Park, is the largest limestone formation in the southern hemisphere, with three stunning limestone arches across the river. Guides lead visitors through the Honeycomb Hill Cave, part of a complex 15 kilometre (nine mile) cave system. 

Punakaiki’s Pancake Rocks, stacked up like pancakes in the heart of Paparoa National Park, date back 30 million years, etched by wind, sea and rain into unusual limestone formations. Today at high tide, blow holes shoot seawater high into the air. Views stretch forever out across the Tasman Sea.

More than 140 glaciers flow from the Southern Alps, but only Fox and Franz Josef glaciers reach as far as the West Coast’s lower rainforests. They're one of only two places in the world where a glacier meets a rainforest. 

Adventure / outdoors

The West Coast’s natural wonders provide the backdrop for many outdoor activities, including superb mountain biking. The West Coast Wilderness Trail and Old Ghost Road are multi-day adventures that form part of the New Zealand Cycle Trail network.

Lake Brunner, inland from Greymouth, is famous for its brown trout and is a growing holiday destination for walking, fishing and boating. Trout fishing safaris provide everything you need on the water, including a local guide.

Hokitika Gorge's native bushland and improbably turquoise waters, crossed by an impressive swingbridge, are a popular attraction for hikers and kayakers. 

At Franz Josef and Fox, two of the world’s most accessible glaciers, guides take hiking tours through seracs, pinnacles, caves and crevasses. Adventure-seekers can also try ice climbing, mountaineering and heli-hiking.

Sky diving over the West Coast’s mountains, glaciers, rainforests and ocean offers unparalleled bird’s-eye views. With jumps from 2,750 to 5,790 metres (9,000 to 19,000 feet), the highest in New Zealand, sky divers can experience the thrill of a freefall lasting between 30 and 75 seconds.

The untamed scenery of the Haast World Heritage Area is the best modern example of Gondwanaland, where visitors can travel deep into the wilderness on a river safari or scenic helicopter flight.

And by the way...

  • The West Coast is 600 kilometres (370 miles) long – about the same distance as from Auckland to Wellington – making it the longest region in New Zealand.
  • Okarito in Westland is New Zealand’s largest unmodified wetland and has the country's only breeding colony of  kotuku (white heron).
  • Fox Glacier’s nevé (snow accumulation area) is bigger than the South Island's main city, Christchurch.
  • In August 1888, Reefton became the first town in the southern hemisphere to have electric street lighting.